Capital punishment is a form of punishment and retribution that involves killing a person through legal means. For some, the death penalty is a significant deterrent that was effectively deterring capital crimes such as murder and armed assault. For others, such as the Death Penalty Information Centre, the death penalty is cruel and unusual and often arbitrarily applied with dire consequences. Although controversial, many states around the world implement the death penalty, and the United States remains an active proponent of this particular form of punishment for what it deems to be the most heinous of crimes. Seeking to explore the moral perspectives of the death penalty through an analysis of the deterrent argument and the application of lethal injection, a potentially cruel and unusual punishment, the following will persuasively argue that the death penalty should be banned. Following this, we will look at the death penalty using Emmanuel Kant’s Deontological and Categorical Imperative theories and the Utilitarian theory. While the deterrence factor is brought into question, this essay will argue that lethal injection runs contrary to the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus should be banned in its entirety (The Death Penalty Information Centre 2009; Hood 2008).
According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, there has been a global trend towards abolishing the death penalty. Despite this trend, a handful of countries in the world continue to use the death penalty as a form of punishment. While 92 states have now abolished the death penalty (including France, Canada, and the United Kingdom), 59 countries worldwide continue to have death penalty legislation on their books. China, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Pakistan remain some of the largest supporters of the death penalty, with China being the overwhelming leader in total executions worldwide. What are the ethical and moral issues surrounding the death penalty?
Now, we are turning to this issue (Hood 2008; Robert 2000).
The Death Penalty: Ethical Issues
From an ethical perspective, the death penalty raises a whole host of questions.
Lethal injection, a particularly insidious form of capital punishment, is practiced throughout the United States and the world and aims to execute a convicted offender by injecting a fatal amount of drugs. It is undeniably the most commonly practiced form of capital punishment in the United States today. For advocates of the death penalty, lethal injection is a more humane punishment than other types of execution commonly practiced over history, such as beheading (practiced often in ancient times) electrocution (through the now infamous electric chair), by firing quad or by gas chamber, among others. Today, lethal injection is a common form of execution throughout the United States. The Death Penalty Information Centre reports that in 2005, every performance conducted in the United States was administered through lethal injection. Despite feelings to the contrary, the use of lethal injection as a primary means to execute a prisoner should be classified as “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus illegal under American law (The Death Penalty Information Centre 2009).
American law has utilized the term “cruel and unusual punishment” to prohibit any form of punishment that meets the criteria above.
This term appears in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, first looking in 1787, and has been enshrined as a legal principle since the 17th century in England and remains alive today through a variety of legislative organs including the United States Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Does execution through lethal injection constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”? According to many, it certainly does. Death through chemical injection is undoubtedly a usual way to die, and the certainty that the chemical cocktail will induce death is in doubt. If the chemical cocktail fails to produce an immediate end, the prisoner could be in excruciating pain before death (sometimes as long as 45 minutes), thus constituting cruel and unusual punishment. State challenges to lethal injection through the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the US Constitution, led to the state of New Jersey officially prohibiting the death penalty, the first state to do so since the American Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Because there is the potential for excruciating pain as well as for botching the entire execution, lethal injection must be banned – as has been done in New Jersey – because it contravenes the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the American Constitution (“New Jersey,” British Broadcasting Corporation 2009; Hood 2008).
What are the theoretical arguments both for and against the death penalty?
According to the Utilitarian theory, the death penalty could be just and thus permissible. Utilitarianism is a series of beliefs, and it argues that the morality of a given action is determined by that action’s overall contribution to the more excellent utility. Thus, as the name would suggest, the service is incredibly essential for utilitarians who argue that the worthiness of action is the result of its outcome, whether that outcome is intended or not. A facet of consequentialist, utilitarian theory looks at measures and their consequences when making a judgment about the morality of the act.
Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill were the most prominent utilitarians. The notion that the “largest good for the greatest number of people” dictates the meaning of an action is a common idea linked to their line of thought. Accordingly, the moral worth of work is essential for utilitarians, and this moral worth is seen as being derived from the consequences of a battle. Thus, the judicial sanction killing of a serial killer – putting an end to his murderous streak – could be interpreted as a positive thing for society. What do Emmanuel Kant’s Deontological and Categorical Imperative theories have to say about the death penalty? Contrary to the consequentialist, a deontological approach to ethics argues that an action’s moral goodness is determined by the act itself and not by its consequences.
From this perspective, the death penalty remains an unethical act because killing someone is wrong.
From the perspective of the Categorical Imperative, it is challenging since the issue of the death penalty in practice is not so cut and dry. While there may be a moral duty to punish a murderer through capital punishment, the question of whether this is morally right or wrong is subject to interpretation. As we have seen above, there are many theoretical interpretations of the application of the death penalty.
In 2003, of all known executions, 84% took place in four countries, namely China, Iran, the United States, and Vietnam. According to the United Nations, abolishing the death penalty is a global trend, and a handful of countries continue to practice this insidious form of punishment with near impunity. We have looked at theoretical arguments both for and against the death penalty, and the issue remains confounded by theory. Despite this, there are many ethical problems with the death penalty in general and lethal injection in particular. The nature in which it is applied is cruel and unusual quality – both the electric chair and lethal injection are both profoundly harsh punishments – and these are fundamental flaws with the death penalty. Because this form of punishment has been proven brutal and unusual, and the deterrent factor is highly questionable, capital punishment should be banned in the United States and around the world (“Capital,” British Broadcasting Corporation 2009).
- British Broadcasting Corporation. (2009). Capital Punishment: Deterrence. Last
- Accessed October 18, 2009, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/against_5.shtml
- British Broadcasting Corporation. (2009). New Jersey Scraps Death Penalty. Last
- Accessed October 18, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7143597.stm
- Hood, R. (2008). Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. London: Oxford University Press.
- Lyons, D. (1965). Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Roberts, R. (2000). Review. The Journal of American History. 87:3 (2000): 1167-1168.
- The Death Penalty Information Centre. (2009). Last Accessed October 18, 2009, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org